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Roman Lessons From Milley

State of the Union: General Mark Milley channels his inner Vegetius.
U.S. General and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley addresses a press conference after the Ukraine Defence Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Ramstein, western Germany, on September 8, 2022. (Andre Pain/AFP via Getty Images)

General Mark Milley gave an eye-opening interview to Foreign Affairs, published Tuesday, during which he spoke about war in Ukraine. According to Milley, the Russian total casualty number, killed and wounded included, is about two hundred and fifty thousand. The Russians currently have about three hundred thousand troops entrenched in the occupied parts of Eastern Ukraine, dug in deep in defensive terrain. The Ukrainians, according to Milley, asked NATO for training and equipment of about nine brigades of “combined arms” troopers. A brigade usually is about five thousand, so that would mean the Ukrainians are readying about forty five thousand troops for a potential counteroffensive. 

Military doctrine states that a rule of thumb for offensive operations in a near peer-to-peer war is that you need three times the force defending to overwhelm the defense. If, for the sake of argument, Ukraine has to reclaim the lands east of Ukraine—Donbas—as well as in the south—Crimea—then it would theoretically need three axes of thrust, two toward east and north-east, and one toward the south. 


Ukraine simply doesn’t have those numbers. And Milley, diplomatic though he was in the interview, sounded pessimistic about Ukraine’s odds, as any detached military man would. 

What he said after was more alarming. “I do think, though, that the probability of either side achieving their political objectives—war is about politics through the sole use of military means—I think that’s going to be very difficult, very challenging. And frankly, I don’t think the probability of that is likely in this year,” Milley said. 

He added that, while we are all speculating about a Ukrainian counteroffensive and there’s certainly a chance of a collapse of Russian defense, there are other possibilities, too. “Then there’s a possibility of partial success. There’s a possibility of limited success. There’s a possibility of no success.” In short, Ukrainians might just simply get massacred trying to retake territory. 

He reached a conclusion that some of us reached before the war: that a negotiated settlement is the best possible way to avoid a catastrophic great power war. “I think that rational folks, as part of the Russian decision-making process, will conclude—I believe, over either months or a year or two—they’re going to conclude that the cost exceeds the benefit, and it’ll be time to do something, at least from a negotiating standpoint. That time may not be now—I can’t read minds,” Milley said, adding that the consequences of escalation—a war between NATO and Russia devastating both sides—should never, ever be countenanced. 

There’s no one in uniform in any military in the world who experienced a great-power war. There are no politicians currently in office that I’m aware of that have firsthand experience. And it’s worthwhile to remember how horrific it is, and that all of us should recommit ourselves to preventing such a horrific catastrophe, and try to resolve differences in means other than the use of the levels of violence that come with great-power war.

Ideoque Scipionis laudata sententia est, qui dixit uiam hostibus, qua fugerent, muniendam, Roman military historian Vegetius wrote, the idea being that a statesman should facilitate an enemy to flee, rather than attempt to surround them to pursue a total war to the end. Choices are not without competing ethical considerations. It is not just unwise but also unethical to invite a catastrophic nuclear war torching humanity just to feel moral about being dragged to a great power by a non-ally in a strategic backwater. Negotiated settlement is a necessity; most wars have historically ended in one. The fact that it is General Milley who is channeling this realism is perhaps more interesting to note. 


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